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 Cafeteria Questions Left Unanswered

December 12, 2007 - Nearly two-and-a-half years after The Banner first asked the Charles A. Beard Memorial School Corporation about a possible financial discrepancy in cafeteria records, answers have still not been provided.

While reviewing monthly cafeteria reports in the summer of 2005, The Banner discovered what it believed to be a discrepancy between the March and April monthly cafeteria reports for that year. Normally, the ending balance from one month is listed at the top of the following month's report, but, with the March and April 2005 reports, these numbers did not match.

According to the March 2005 report that had been provided to The Banner, the cafeteria program's balance at the end of March was minus $35,027.38. At the top of the April report, however, CAB had listed the end-of-March balance as $28,267.47 on the positive side, a difference of $63,294.85.

In a July 21, 2005, letter to the CAB School Board and former CAB Superintendent Hal Jester, The Banner asked why there was this discrepancy between the March and April 2005 cafeteria reports. The Banner also asked several other questions about the cafeteria program financial reports, as well as a few dealing with unrelated matters.

Neither the school board nor Jester provided The Banner with responses to any of the questions asked in the newspaper's letter. However, Jester, or someone else familiar with the cafeteria program's finances, did provide school board members with answers to some of the questions the following week.

Jester had attached a copy of The Banner's July 21 letter to the weekly memo he sent CAB's seven school board members on July 29, 2005. Through a public record request in the fall of 2005, The Banner discovered that the copy of the July 21 letter Jester attached to his memo had additional writing on the second page, material The Banner has not been permitted to see.

The second page of The Banner's July 21, 2005, letter had almost five inches of unused space below the last question. On the copy CAB gave The Banner two years ago, what appears to be at least 15 lines of typed text added in this space was blacked out. There is also a redacted spot at the top of the page in the left margin measuring about one inch by one-and-a-half inches.

CAB claimed it blacked out this record based on a statute that permits public agencies to withhold records "specifically prepared for discussion or developed during discussion in an executive session." Redactions made pursuant to this statute are discretionary, not mandatory, and these types of records may be released if a public agency chooses to do so.

The Banner filed a new record request with CAB this past August asking for an uncensored copy of this document, as well as three other records Jester sent the board that were previously provided in redacted form. Because the redactions made in 2005 had been, according to CAB, discretionary, the newspaper hoped the five members who had joined the board since July 2006 would opt to exercise their discretion in favor of releasing the records.

The board, however, did not do this. In fact, the board did not exercise its discretion at all with respect to the matter, leaving it, instead, to be handled by the school corporation's public access officer, Jena Schmidt, and CAB's attorney.

In September, Schmidt notified The Banner that CAB, on the advice of their attorney, would not be providing uncensored copies of the requested records. Not only was The Banner's request denied, however, but one of CAB's own school board members was also denied an opportunity to see these records.

When he asked in September to see the four records The Banner had requested, board member Kevin Knott was only allowed to see the heavily censored copies that were given to the newspaper in 2005. Despite the fact that the state's public access counselor, Heather Neal, has said she doesn't think CAB is justified in denying Knott or any other board member access to these records, Schmidt, who says she is following the attorney's advice, has not made the records available to Knott.

Schmidt told The Banner that CAB attorney Mike Wallman told her the four records in question, including the one with possible answers to the cafeteria questions, are now “confidential.” According to a letter he had written to Schmidt, Wallman offered this advice without even first reviewing the records himself to determine if the initial redactions were proper.

Although Knott is the only board member who has asked to see these records, Schmidt said Wallman told her they are also off-limits to the other four board members who took office after Jester originally issued the records to the board. Board President Mike Fruth and Debi Ware are the only two current board members who were in office when Jester issued his July 29, 2005, memo and the other three records to the board.

The agenda for CAB's meeting next Tuesday, December 18, lacks details and does not indicate whether the board intends to address Schmidt's continued refusal to let Knott see these records. Any members of the public wishing to address the board should submit a written request to CAB's central office no later than this Thursday.

Next week's 7:30 p.m. meeting will take place at CAB's central office. 340 N. Adams Street.

 

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